External Affairs

America’s Moment, or How to Turn a Crisis into an Opportunity

A defence of the status quo that focuses too much on Trump and Sanders (and Brexit) as threats, rather than as pointing the way to a new order, is a road to nowhere but the rise of the radical Right and the forces of backward-looking nationalism and chauvinism.

U.S. President Barrack Obama takes part in a Town Hall meeting at Lindley Hall in London, Britain, April 23, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

U.S. President Barrack Obama takes part in a Town Hall meeting at Lindley Hall in London, Britain, April 23, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Barack Obama’s recent visit to the United Kingdom to intervene in support of the Remain (in the European Union) campaign was an attempt to prevent the further unravelling of the US-led world system which is in severe crisis at home and facing significant problems abroad.

A united Europe – as a bulwark against the Soviet ‘threat’ and as a market for US goods and investment – was an American project. Today, it is threatening to disintegrate under the pressure of the Eurozone crisis, the refugee problem engulfing the continent as a result of past US interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and the rise of European nationalisms on the Left and extreme Right. The solution: forge a new grand bargain at home and abroad that allows for diffused leadership serving a broader range of national and class interests in the global polity. In concrete terms, this means either more democracy and equality (and less liberty and more state regulation), or outright control of the forces of the market that have devastated working class and poor communities through unrestrained globalisation.

The American president’s intervention in the Brexit debate links his position on the issue to the crisis of Europe, where the Right is on the march – predictably, he drew a thinly-coded race card response from Boris Johnson and others from the Vote Leave (the EU) campaign – but also the Middle East, where the US and Britain actively disordered the region after 9-11 that led directly to the rise of Islamic State. His position is also a reflection of the anti-establishment turmoil in the US primaries.

Obama’s intervention points to the crisis of an international order established in the 1940s that froze power relations and has changed little over the past 70 years, and a domestic party system inaugurated by Reaganomics and social conservatism in 1980 that has yielded power to the market and Wall Street corporations.

Yet, the world has changed and power relations need to change with it. America’s imperial paternalism – that brooks no one else’s nationalism and even brands some variants of its own as ‘isolationism’ – needs to diminish to permit others to exercise the responsibilities of statehood, to develop a stronger stake in the global order, and better manage the world of the 21st century. And that grand bargain must be reflected and anchored at home in a political realignment – currently being fashioned by the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders insurgencies. This realignment must take into account the interests of young people, the working poor and the squeezed middle class, and engineer a more socially responsible and politically-accountable financial elite – the 0.1% that since the 1990s has led the corporate takeover of American politics and the current inequalities of income, wealth and power.

Many frame the issue from conservative positions – producing blueprints for a slightly reformed US-led order. One has only to look at the reports coming out of Brookings, the Council on Foreign Relations and the legion of scholars at America’s many elite academies – such as Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School (for example,). But their flawed, US-centric framing leads to a status quoist set of conclusions, while actually there is an historic opportunity presented by the crisis for a renegotiation of global order or perhaps a series of negotiations – thematic and regional – to reshape and fashion a new settlement for the new century.

Dominant framings of the issue lead to an omission of any serious consideration of the opportunities presented by Donald Trump’s critique of the US role in world, especially his questioning of its principal post-1945 institutions and relationships. For raising those questions alone, the GOP’s primaries front-runner is branded an isolationist. But Trump’s challenge is more than “isolationism”; isolationism is an epithet used by the US foreign policy establishment to undermine practically any opposition to its interpretation of America’s global role. Trump is an “America First-er”, not an isolationist, and questions the various alliances and institutions that the US-led order built and rests upon. Trump’s challenge – whether or not he wins the nomination or the general election – will not go away, because it’s one raised on the Left by Bernie Sanders too. Between Trump and Sanders, and the ratchet effect of Sanders on Hillary Clinton, there is a structural problem highlighted by their current popularity that is deep-seated and enduring and has now come to a head in a popular revolt against the American elite.

The conservatism of entirely US-centric solutions and critiques of Trump (and Sanders) also elides serious critiques of either the inequalities of the US-led international order or of its effects at home.  The majority of Americans have seen their income shares and wealth diminish steadily since the 1970s and are fully aware of the inequities of power and wealth distributions. That is why they are rejecting the elites of both parties in such great numbers.

Need for realignment

The domestic crisis of US liberal order and its global problems are related but are not insoluble. They require a realignment at home and abroad. Otherwise, narrow nationalist impulses will come to the fore while at the moment there is an opportunity to redefine and reshape globalisation to benefit and not damage so many people – instead of carrying on which the old project of hollowing out the state in its social functions, cutting adrift large swathes of people.

This may be an historic moment of opportunity presented by crisis; the dominant concepts are no longer working adequately, fixed in old global power relations from 1945, slightly tweaked and absorbed in the 1970s, broadly incorporating as apprentices global south ‘middle class’ powers like India, China and Brazil. When the West was confronted with the rise of the oil-producing states of the Arab world and the challenge of the G-77 third world countries demanding a New International Economic Order, its elites did what they’d done with the domestic rise of working class reform movements – they bought them off. Those days, and that kind of thinking, may be long gone.

Defending the status quo is to defend the iniquitous past. A defence of the status quo that focuses too much on Trump and Sanders (and Brexit) as threats, rather than as pointing the way to a new order, is a road to nowhere but the rise of the radical Right and the forces of backward-looking nationalism and chauvinism. There is sufficient force in the rise of Trump and Sanders which suggests there are significant bases for future positive change.

What the new order will look like is the big issue, not whether there should be one at all. This is the major question of our time.

Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics, and co-director of the Centre for International Policy Studies, at City University London. Follow him on Twitter and via his blog.